Being a Trotskyist in the academy is something of an uncomfortable position. In the humanities, one has always to contend with the hegemony of cultural studies, which weighs on anyone interested in old fashioned matters like social structures or causality. The dominance of this approach has also led to a climate of generalized anti-Marxism, as historical materialism has become the dead horse cult studs (as Thomas Frank called them) flog in order to assure us of their novelty. For all the praise these writers have for openness, multiplicitly, and ambivalence, Marxism, it seems, is a book which must be definitively close before these virtues can be celebrated.
Even if one is lucky enough to find an academic circle in which this nonsense does not receive a free pass, Trotskyism presents special problems. It is, after all, is still a species of ‘vanguardism’ in the eyes of the soft academic left, and thus bears some responsibility for the sullying of socialism in the twentieth century. The political engagement central to Trotskyism is similarly irksome. Even if one is lucky enough (as I have been) to find an advisor who is a politically engaged Marxist, it’s as likely as not that they will come from a Stalinist tradition.
The question of Trotskyism is similarly uncomfortable historiographically. Though the study of American radicalism has progressed immensely over the last twenty years, its focus on a recovery of the CPUSA’s legacy from Cold War slanders has served to marginalize discussion of Trotskyist groups. Thus while we are finally reaching the point where histories of the Left are required reading for those hoping to write on civil rights or women’s activism, groups outside the CP still receive little attention. This lacuna is magnified by the disproportionate role Trotskyists have played in American history. Though their numbers have never been impressive, Trots of various stripes played a key role in events from the Minneapolis General Strike of 1934 to the Berkeley Free Speech Movement. On an individual level, Trotskyists from C.L.R. James to Harry Braverman to Hal Draper have produced works of a level which ranks with the best the CPGB Historian’s Group ever produced. Yet the political context in which these activists and writers developed has never been properly understood.
Bryan Palmer’s new biography of James P. Cannon, founder of American Trotskyism, forcefully raises these questions and more. Though Palmer’s book ends in 1928, before Trotskyism was a coherent tradition anywhere but in the minds of Stalinist apparatchiks, it confronts historians of American radicalism with a number of questions which promise to significantly change the shape of future discussion.
In a wonderfully pugnacious Introduction, Palmer argues that the historiography of American communism has betrayed a certain reticence to confront the early years of the Communist Party. Historians have, understandably, focused much more heavily on the romantic years of the Depression, when Communists fought the Klan in Alabama and helped beat General Motors in Flint. Yet this focus has distorted the subject in a number of ways, as it has relieved historians of the burden of tracing the development of the party. As such, it has led to a great deal of sloppiness over the key question of Moscow influence, which has always been the dividing line between the New Left influenced ‘revisionists’ and conservative ‘traditionalists.’ While the traditionalists follow Theodore Draper in portraying the American party as an appendage of Moscow, the revisionists emphasize the grassroots initiative which characterized local campaigns. Both sides, Palmer argues, fail to appreciate the transformation which took place during the mid-1920s, when a party which began as a domestic response to war and revolution slowly became utterly subordinated to Moscow. Examining this period of American radicalism thus exposes the limitations of revisionism and traditionalism, both of which fail to consider how the party changed, and why.
Palmer’s argument here is cogent and incisive, but I think it could be pushed further. Part of the reason revisionist scholars insisted on the grassroots nature of American socialism stems from their own evaluations of the reasons for the demise of the New Left. As SDS tore itself apart in chants of “Mao, Mao, Mao Tse-Tung” vs. “Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh,” many of its activists who would go on to the academy concluded that the reason for this ignoble end came down to the devotion of both sides to foreign ideologies. In response, they sought to unearth the native traditions of radicalism, which could provide a better usable past for those seeking resources for rebuilding the American left. In seeking to rehabilitate the CP, these authors thus portrayed the party as a site of struggle between authentic American radicalism and bureaucratic deformation. James Barrett’s biography of CP leader William Z. Foster, for example, sets itself the goal of explaining how product of a indigenous American radical could fall under the spell of foreign domination.For the New Left scholars, the study of communism was partially a way of coming to terms with their own past.
Though Palmer doesn’t extend his critique of the historiography this far, his presentation of the early years of American Communism effectively makes the case that, in the pre-Stalinized Comintern at least, foreign directives could have a positive impact. Palmer makes this case by looking at the years of American Communism when two parties laying claim to the name, the Communist Labor Party (CLP) and the Communist Party of America (CPA), contended for the position of Comintern party in the US. Both parties had their origins in the disintegration of the Socialist Party in 1919, when the party’s Right and Center wings expelled the Left. One group of Lefts, consisting of native born radicals like John Reed and focused on fighting around the labor question, became the CLP. The CPA’s foundations, on the other hand, were in the large immigrant federations, who took an ultraleft position arguing for a strictly underground party and calling for the immediate formation of American soviets and the dictatorship of the proletariat.
James Cannon became a key member of the CLP, and, as Palmer shows, was instrumental in the negotiations which would bring the two parties together to form the Worker’s Party. Although the two organizations were merged on paper, however, the immigrant federations still pursued an ultraleft course, and sought to decisively subordinate aboveground work to the imperatives of the underground. Arguing that such a course promised to isolate the WP from layers of workers who would otherwise be sympathetic to its message, Cannon and his allies took the question to the Fourth Congress of the Comintern in 1922. There, they won the support of Trotksy and Zinoviev, who ordered the ultralefts to cease their continued factional maneuvers. Supposedly Lenin himself looked at the question from his sickbed. When shown a copy of the underground’s newspaper, he reportedly scrawled in its margins “Stop this nonsense.” The Comintern’s decision thus paved the way for the unification of the party around an aboveground apparatus, which could openly participate in the kind of united fronts that the Comintern was then calling for. While the foreign language federations had the numerical minority inside the American party, their course would have kept the CP marginalized and prevented it from establishing the foundations which allowed it to have such an impact during the Depression.
Although Palmer doesn’t pay close attention to it, the Fourth Congress also featured another decision which positively affected the American party. This concerned the Negro Question, as it was then called. Though the Worker’s Party had inherited the best perspectives on racism from the Left Wing of the SP, by 1922 it had given no signs of considering the race problem in America worthy of any special attention. This changed at the Fourth Congress. Claude McKay, who had joined the American party but was dissatisfied with its approach to the race question, traveled to Moscow to present his views before the court of world communism. There, he was received as a celebrity, an authentic American revolutionary Negro. In a speech before the assembled delegates, he condemned his party’s line on race, arguing that their refusal to take seriously the fight of Negroes against their own oppression betrayed a hidden racism within the party. Without including the struggles of American Blacks, McKay argued, the American revolution would be stillborn.
The Comintern eagerly adopted McKay’s perspective, commissioning him to expand it into a book length study. It also established a Negro Commission, tasked with developing a specific Comintern line on the subject. The resulting theses (available here) recognized the importance of Black struggle against racism, and urged Communists all over the world to support those struggles. In the United States, the Comintern/McKay perspective was first expressed in a series of articles Robert Minor would publish in the Liberator. These articles, which I’ve scanned and attached as an appendix to this review, are extraordinary pieces, which seek to construct a narrative of Black history centered around the consistent struggle of Blacks against their oppression. Minor digs deep into the history of slavery, unearthing slave revolts that even today students of Black history rarely read about. He also revealed a deep respect for the writings of Black historians like W.E.B. Du Bois, Carter G. Woodson, and James Weldon Johnson. Though the history of the pre-Communist Left’s treatment of the race question is not quite the economistic wasteland it is commonly portrayed as, Minor’s articles nonetheless represented a breakthrough in their appreciation for the importance of Black struggle. Though gesturing towards McKay’s importance, Palmer largely ignores this story in the biography, as Minor developed into a vicious factional opponent of Cannon’s (although Palmer has written insightfully on the subject elsewhere. See his excellent review of my advisor’s last book here.)
Palmer’s close focus on Cannon, even as it obscures some important developments, pays off however, in persuasiveness of its central argument: that James P. Cannon was one of the two or three most important figures in the first decade of American Communism. Rooted in a decade of experience with the Industrial Workers of the World (who had already by 1920 entered the folklore of American radicalism), Palmer was a respected figure in the early CP. As mentioned above, he was instrumental bringing together the warring parties of the early years, laying the groundwork for an aboveground party which could effectively intervene in various struggles. Similarly, Cannon was a key opponent of John Pepper, a Hungarian revolutionist who, after various hijincks in the Comintern, was dumped into the American party where, it was hoped, his capacity for damage would be limited (Pepper was dislodged from his place of prominence in Hungarian Communism by the political arguments of one Georg Lukács). Unfortunately, he proved quite up to the task of disorganizing the CPUSA, carrying it through a number of united front operations in which the party managed to alienate the few sympathizers it then had on the American Left. Cannon was intensely critical of this line of march, arguing in one context that “If we flood the conference with Workers Party delegates, we simply lay the conference open to such a successful attack and thereby defeat ourselves by defeating the conference.” Unfortunately, Pepper and his allies ignored Cannon’s warning, and pursued the kind of rule or ruin strategy that somehow always ends up as the latter.
Cannon was much more successful in his work to establish the International Labor Defense, which Palmer argues was basically a creation of Cannon and his wife as well as the most successful initiative of the CP during the 1920s. Drawing on his experience with the Wobblies, who were famous for their free speech fights, Cannon proposed a united front around defending class war prisoners. Such a strategy would help link the Party with sympathetic layers, establish its credibility as a force on the Left, and expose the repression inherent in capitalist democracy. Under Cannon’s leadership, the ILD helped support prisoner’s families, raised awareness about their cases, and rallied workers to fight against repression. In particular, the ILD’s leadership in the struggle against Sacco and Vanzetti’s execution, though hobbled by Cannon’s factional opponents, established it as a leading force on the American Left. Given the ILD’s importance during the Depression (for example during the Scottsboro case), Cannon’s role in its founding should shake up our conceptions of who accomplished what during the 1930s.
Though Palmer’s tone on occasion approaches hagiographic, he does not shy away from criticisms of Cannon. For example, he notes that Cannon largely went along with the Comintern’s campaign against Trotsky until 1928, when he received a copy of Trotsky’s criticisms of the Comintern Draft Program. Similarly, Palmer is clear that Cannon was not always fair to his family, as his work with the party basically broke up his first marriage and frequently strained his second. In particular, Palmer is careful to note the masculinist culture of early American radicalism, where women were frequently viewed as a temptation which would distract the eternal male revolutionary. Though Palmer is clear that he thinks Cannon was clearly the outstanding leader of early American Communism, his subject never acquires the kind of otherworldliness which communist leaders often have in the hands of their followers.
With this biography, Palmer has thus opened a space for a far more inclusive discussion of American Communism. Future historians will, hopefully, have to come to terms with the early years of the Party as well as those currents which would continue on outside of it. Though this review has focused on the book’s import within an academic context, I am sure that Palmer would rather its greatest impact be in the field of American radicalism itself. Here, the book undoubtedly constitutes a tremendous resource to radicals seeking a usable past. Although struggles today are undoubtedly at a lower ebb than when Jim Cannon was struggling to hold a nascent party together, his history nonetheless contains much of value for those seeking to build a new current of American radicalism today.
As promised, here are Robert Minor’s extraordinary articles on racism from the Liberator. To appreciate how groundbreaking they are, you have to have some acquaintance with the paucity of white Leftist discussions of race at the time. Though hardly relevant to the piece at hand, they’re a big part of what I’ve been working on all semester. So there.